"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"

1 Christmas.B.20
Titus 2:11-14 & Luke
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

On a normal year at St. Paul’s, the First Sunday of Christmas is reserved for a congregational carol sing. That makes perfect sense for Episcopalians. After all, we’ve spent the preceding four weeks of Advent singing Advent Hymns rather than rushing headlong into the music of Christmas. Now that we have officially entered into the season of Christmas, with today being the third of the twelve days of Christmas, it makes sense that we’re ready to Carol. Alas, 2020 has not been the year anyone anticipated; and caroling (at least in the traditional sense) is off limits.

So, instead of a carol sing, we will learn more about a carol. One carol, in particular, beloved of many, but lacking an appearance in our 1982 hymnal. Today I would like to share with you a bit of the story behind the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “I heard the bells on Christmas Day” that has been set to music as a Christmas carol. We will conclude by sharing a video of Julie Tierney, who will sing the hymn for us.

Henry Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine. Yet, bear in mind that this was in 1807, a time in which Maine was still a part of Massachusetts; so, we’ll consider him a native son. After all, Longfellow lived a good portion of his life in Cambridge. He was an American poet and professor at both Bowdoin and later Harvard College. Some of his works with which you may be familiar are “Paul Revere’s Ride”, “The Song of Hiawatha” and “Evangeline”.

Longfellow penned the words to “I heard the bells on Christmas Day” on Christmas Day, in the year 1863. His poem is a testament to his faith in the power of God and humanity to join together and transcend the horrors of war.

The two years prior to writing this poem had been difficult for Longfellow. In 1861 he fell into a deep depression when his wife Frances died. She had been sealing envelopes with hot wax when a flame caught her clothes on fire. Henry had rushed to her aid and attempted to smother the flames. But by the time the fire was out, Frances had been burned beyond recovery. She died the next day. Henry was burned badly as well. In fact, he was so severely injured he was unable to attend her funeral. Mentally, he sank into a deep depression.

The following year, on Christmas Day in 1862, Longfellow would record in his journal: “A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

The next year, Longfellow would be dealt yet another blow. While he was a staunch abolitionist, he was deeply troubled by his country’s decision to go to war. Nevertheless, his son, Charley, in March of that year, decided to join the Union Army. Charley would be seriously injured in a skirmish at the battle of New Hope Church in Virginia. Longfellow received word on December 1, 1863 that his son had been badly wounded. He, and his younger son, Ernest, left at once to bring Charley home. They would reach Cambridge on December 8th and Charley would begin the slow process of recuperation. The Christmas of 1863 was a mere six months after the battle of Gettysburg where over 40,000 soldiers lost their lives. It was this same year that Longfellow heard the Christmas bells and wrote his famous poem. “I head the bells on Christmas day”. This work was penned in the midst of tremendous personal loss, depression, anxiety and the division of a beloved country.

If ever there was a carol for the year 2020, this is it. There are so many of us who can relate. Among us are those who have lost loved ones; others who are suffering effects of depression and isolation and still more who lament the deep and troubling divisions in a country which we love.

Here is why this carol speaks to me—and, I hope, to you as well. You see, Longfellow did not write this poem when his personal pain and that of his country had achieved something of a resolution. On that Christmas Day in 1863, the canons continued to roar; Longfellow’s beloved Francis was still dead; and his son Charley was badly injured. In other words, Longfellow couldn’t yet see the end of the tunnel through which he, his family and his country were moving; yet he sensed there was, with the presence of God, the possibility of light ahead. And that light wasn’t simply a wish—think of it instead as hope; a hope born of faith and rooted in God. Longfellow’s faith wasn’t composed of cheerful denial; it was rooted in reality, and as such, it is deeply poignant and relevant even today as we live through our current lamentable situation.

Listen to these words: “And in despair I bowed my head;/ “There is no peace on earth,” I said; “For hate is strong,/And mocks the song/Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” Longfellow knew the cost of hatred; and the toll that strife had taken upon too many families and the lives of good people. For myself, I can imagine folks at the height of the Civil War as well as in our own day and age nodding their heads in agreement. Hate is strong; and division, strife and suffering are real. Yet, Longfellow continues. “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:/ God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;/ The Wrong shall fail/ The Right prevail,/ With peace on earth, good-will to men. Now these….these are words which take courage to write and to speak, as death tolls climb and suffering continues. These are words of hope, and of faith. They push aside despair, cynicism and sarcasm, and reach instead, into a deep wellspring of hope that comes from a faith in God which has been handed down through generations of people who have come to know and love the Lord, given to us in the form of a tiny child, grown to be the Savior of the world. This is the faith which gave Longfellow hope during that dark year of 1863; and it is the same faith which is handed down to us in 2020. It is as relevant this morning as it was in the year 1863 when Longfellow put pen to paper.

The bells of Christmas speak to us of a joy which circumstances cannot override—a joy which finds its hope in Jesus. The reverberations of those bells, they continue to resonate with us over the centuries to this day. They bring us good news on this First Sunday after Christmas Day—good news which reminds us that God is indeed present, active and working toward the good of all people and the redemption of our world.

Please join with me as we listen to this poem, put to music and sung by Julie Tierney.